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Boswell: “Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player”

Apr 21, 2014, 8:44 AM EDT

Bryce Harper Getty Getty Images

You probably saw that Bryce Harper was benched on Saturday after he didn’t run out a ground ball (it was hit back to the pitcher). Matt Williams called it a lack of “hustle” and made a point to call him out publicly after the game. We already covered this one for the most part, but for what it’s worth — and keeping in mind this is a nitpick — I think “hustle” isn’t exactly the issue here. At least not as we usually think of it.

Generally speaking, Harper is nothing if not hustle (the Nats’ program the very day of that game is evidence of that). Indeed, until Saturday the biggest talking point about Harper was whether he hustled too much and whether he should slow down some in an effort to not tax his body. The play on Saturday, I feel, was less about physical effort than it was about (a) quitting mentally; and (b) Williams sending a message to his team in general, even if Harper was the pretext for it. If Harper slowly jogged all the way to first I’m guessing Williams doesn’t bench him, even if that’s not exactly “hustle” as usually defined. It’s more about just giving up on the play. If the Nats had been playing better baseball lately, I’m guessing Williams doesn’t react the way he did.

That’s not a major point, but feel like “hustle” or the lack thereof has become a proxy for laziness and that so often the “hustle” conversation inspires false hustle and needless hustle in ways that are unnecessary. Williams was trying to make Harper and the Nats in general mentally sharper. To not quit or lose focus. He wasn’t — I hope anyway — trying to instill a culture where guys sprint after ball four and in from the bullpen like Pete Rose or something. For that reason he was fine to bench Harper, even if I take issue with him (a) calling him out publicly like he did, which seems unprofessional to me; and (b) couching it in terms of hustle which is such an amorphous and malleable word in sports these days. One which leads to a lot of dumb and unproductive inferences and incentives.

Anyway, with that aside, let’s look at something less nuanced and far, far dumber. It’s Tom Boswell of the Washington Post going off on Harper about this in his latest column. After several paragraphs of ripping Harper and lauding Matt Williams for sending Harper a message, Boswell uncorks this:

Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

This is what I’m talking about. You put a guy in the crosshairs like Williams did by calling him out in a postgame presser and you declare this a conversation about hustle, you give people license to take their knives out and go insanely over the top because, hey, not hustling is, like, the WORST THING YOU CAN DO and arglebarglebagleblah!

Boswell famously created a stat called Total Average one time. It has been widely debunked as a useful analytical tool and it’s actually pretty misleading. So, perhaps it is not so shocking to see him totally whiffing on a point of analysis here. But hey, if he can get anyone inside baseball to agree that Harper is some mediocre player because of a mental lapse or that they’d rather have Anthony Rendon than Bryce Harper now, five years from now or 20 years from now I suppose I’ll moderate my stance.

  1. jmbic - Apr 21, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    The 7 best players on the Nats, in no particular order:

    Werth
    Harper
    Desmond
    Zimmerman
    Zimmermann
    Strasburg
    Gio

    I’d say it’s possible Harper is the worst of the bunch, right now. I think he’s pretty clearly better than Rendon, though.

    • NatsLady - Apr 21, 2014 at 11:55 AM

      Huh? I assume that was sarcasm. Rendon probably the best player on the Nats this season.

      • clemente2 - Apr 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

        You are talking results (small sample size, luck, etc.) and the others are talking talent level (expected performance over a long period of time).

      • jmbic - Apr 21, 2014 at 2:53 PM

        No, I’m serious. Rendon may end up being very good, but he doesn’t yet have the track record of the others. I’d probably have Harper #3 behind J Zimmermann and Strasburg in current true talent, but all of these guys are established as very good players (which is why I said you could make a case for Harper being 7th best, even though it’s unlikely and a bit of a stupid attempt at a slight).

  2. luz56 - Apr 21, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    And it shows how badly managed they are too… Matt Williams couldn’t manage a one car parade down main street … Nats are playing far below talent level!!!

  3. Marty - Apr 21, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    Craig, man..look at all these “old white” reporters and columnists getting all bent out of shape because “how he doesn’t respect the game”. There must be something going on here. Lets troll madly.

  4. drewsylvania - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Has Boswell ever heard of Ted Williams? He was the opposite of happy-go-lucky.

  5. drewsylvania - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    Boswell has a knack for page hits–not intelligence, wit, or consistency.

  6. mikhelb - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:26 PM

    What was your tool called? the one to value a manager’s looks or something like that…

  7. William Miller - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    Way to go, Craig, with the pointless, junior high school-level insult to Tom Boswell by criticizing a stat he came up with, because, you know, every single other stat that has been invented over the past 15 years are all perfect, useful and obviously accurate. I’m amazed at how personal and immature the baseball pundit community has become in recent years, especially since the advent of Twitter. So many of you sound like you could easily be sitting around a table in an eight-grade cafeteria, slinging insults at the uncool guy you’ve arbitrarily decided to ostracize. Time to grow up.

  8. charlutes - Apr 21, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    Yeah, whoever wrote that is nuts. It’s really odd at the end, like he’s forcing his point by declaring himself correct. I do think that Bryce Harper is over rated. Still a good, plus player in most categories but he’s not in the top echelon of the league as a hitter.

  9. straightouttavtown - Apr 21, 2014 at 5:39 PM

    Harper is good FOR HIS AGE. He’s not even the best outfielder on his own team. That would be Jayson Werth. Numbers don’t lie. The media hype does. Harper is a dynamic corner outfielder, but he’s not elite. Werth is better than him.

  10. brianc2540 - Apr 21, 2014 at 6:33 PM

    Nationals’ WAR leaders since 2012:

    1. Ian Desmond – 9.8
    2. Gio Gonzalez – 8.6
    3. Bryce Harper – 8.3
    4. Stephen Strasburg – 8.0
    5. Ryan Zimmerman – 7.4
    6. Jordan Zimmermann – 7.2
    7. Jayson Werth – 5.4

    And Harper is being benched for jogging off the field AFTER he got thrown out, and batting 6th and 7th because he doesn’t respect the game?!

    • straightouttavtown - Apr 21, 2014 at 7:10 PM

      WAR is a BS stat. By any objective measure, Werth is a better player than Harper.

      • brianc2540 - Apr 21, 2014 at 8:27 PM

        WAR is based solely on the things you do on the field to create runs (performance at the plate and running the bases) and prevent runs (performance in the field), and thus calculates how you contributing to your team’s ability to win games by scoring more runs than the other team. It ignores subjective measures such as moxy, grit, and Anthony Rendon’s smile. So how exactly is WAR not an objective measure?

  11. Fantasy Football Consultant - Apr 22, 2014 at 12:51 AM

    This site needs new writers

  12. campcouch - Apr 22, 2014 at 2:02 AM

    doesn’t this guy knock himself out fielding. Ah well,I’m sure there are 20 teams that would trade you their best player for Harper.

  13. Fantasy Football Consultant - Apr 22, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    WAR is based on an imaginary comparison for starters. It’s just another dumb seam head formula.

    • brianc2540 - Apr 22, 2014 at 5:25 PM

      WAR is not “based on” an imaginary comparison. The calculations of a player’s run production/prevention are all based on their real, actual, objective performance. The replacement player concept (the R in WAR) merely gives you a consistent point of comparison. For example… if you say you’re flying an airplane at 50,000-feet… that’s 50,000-feet over what? Over the tallest mountain peak? Over the lowest canyon? No, it’s 50,000-feet over SEA LEVEL. Selecting sea level as your point of comparison (like choosing a replacement level of production to evaluate WAR) doesn’t change the level you’re flying at (or performing at)… it just ensures that everybody’s measuring from the same baseline so that planes don’t crash into each other (and player comparisons are apples-to-apples).

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